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Latin continues to be offered, with classical civilisation and Greek – all useful adjuncts to history of art where we observed one of those lessons we wished we had had ourselves: Classicism v Brutalism – or the proportion and beauty of Palais Garnier versus the layered horizontal terraces of the National Theatre. Art is simply everywhere, including in the loo, where a print of Velazquez’ Rokeby Venus is the antidote to…

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What the school says...

Fine Arts College was founded in 1978 as an independent sixth form college specialising in the study of Arts and Humanities. Today the College offers a wide choice of subjects at GCSE and A level as well as a two-term Portfolio Course for students preparing for art school entry. The College is rated 'Outstanding' by Ofsted.

The College is located in a characterful part of Belsize Park with the main site situated in a secluded courtyard away from the bustle of the street. The courtyard buildings, originally a Victorian dairy, are modern and light-filled and comprise a series of lecture and tutorial rooms alongside art, drama and music studios. The College also houses specialist studios for photography and media studies nearby. Each of the tutorial rooms has its own extensive subject library including books, slides and DVDs.

The College functions on an ethos of mutual respect where an individuals talents and ambitions are encouraged and nurtured. For this reason the number of students is restricted to no more than 160, maintaining small class sizes and strong pastoral care for all students and ensuring an exceptional pass rate in exams. Virtually all students go on to higher education at a range of universities and art, music and drama schools.

Fine Arts College provides an opportunity for young people to study in a mature, open and stimulating atmosphere; a unique bridge between school and university.
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What The Good Schools Guide says

Principal

Principal Candida Cave (aka Candy, this is a first-name-terms school) clearly exudes the same art school elegance that she did when she founded the college with fellow artist Nicholas Cochrane in 1978: stylish, eccentric, with a timeless trademark bob. After studying painting at the Ruskin, she taught history of art and loved it. On the morning we visited, she had delivered an assembly on two abstract Rothko paintings and that evening was giving a gallery tour to adults, including parents, of the early modern collection at Tate Britain. ‘Learning is ongoing,’ she says, ‘and it is important that our students realise that it is a lifelong process.’

She has now handed over the day-to-day running of the school to her daughter Emmy, but is still the outward face of the school, ensuring that the essential founding ethos remains unchanged: to instil a love of learning, especially of the arts, in her students. Sceptical of exam re-marks and retakes, she sees the qualification as the least interesting part of the process. ‘We see students as having great possibilities; it’s about helping them achieve their potential in the most positive way, and this includes helping them get into wherever they want to go.’ She is proud of her students, as evidenced by the impressive artwork in her study, all home-grown. ‘She really wanted the best outcome for us and was endlessly supportive,’ enthuses one appreciative student.

Emmy Schwieters, appointed head in 2018, was born into the FAC cradle. Inspired by her mother’s history of art lessons, she studied English and history of art at Leeds, and still teaches the subject to sixth form. The mother–daughter relationship, she tells us, thrives on honest, constructive conversations and absolute clarity around each role. She is warm and approachable and, we are confidently assured by parents, very responsive to any concern. As the mother of two children approaching their teenage years, she knows how to talk to young people in an engaging way, while making it clear that she is in charge. She knows the students very well, nurturing rather than indulging, and they take comfort in this.

Entrance

All students interviewed by principal and head prior to being offered a place: around 30 places for year 10 entry an around 90 places into sixth form, when candidates need five GCSEs at grade 4 or above, including in English and maths plus reference from previous school. Interviewing begins in early October but it is sometimes possible to join mid-year. Places on the one-year portfolio course (post A level) offered on the basis of interview and portfolio assessment.

Exit

Just under half leave after GCSEs. Popular destinations for sixth formers are King’s College London, Bristol, Leeds, Manchester, Sussex and University of Arts, London. Degree courses include English literature, business, politics and history, although by far the majority of leavers go to leading art and design colleges in the UK and abroad. The principal keeps abreast of what is on offer at different art schools and great care is taken to find the right course for each student. Portfolios are prepared with the destination in mind, and are sometimes so impressive they may negate the need for an art foundation. Three overseas in 2023 – to Berklee College of Music, Boston; Northeastern University, Boston; and Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, New York.

Latest results

In 2023, 41 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 64 per cent 9-4 in both maths and English. At A level, 28 per cent A*/A (59 per cent A*-B).

Teaching and learning

A wide range of subjects is now offered at both GCSE and A level, although the school continues to enjoy a reputation as a specialist arts college. At A level it is possible to combine a group of similar creative subjects: say, performing arts, dance, drama and music, or art and design with fine art, graphic design, photography and fashion/textiles. The arts subjects are mainly taught by practising artists, actors and musicians, which creates a sense of relevance in this creative environment. Some members of staff are alumnae themselves (we sometimes failed to distinguish the younger ones from their students) and, ranging in age from their twenties to seventies, we were told of the collegiate atmosphere amongst staff; many find it hard to leave.

The informal nature of the relationship between staff and students encourages a motivated approach to work. Mutual respect (a recurring theme) is very much in evidence in the fine art studio, where we saw staff and students bounce ideas off each other with good-natured banter. One teacher told us that ‘it is so important to feel important when producing your own artwork’, and one grateful alumnus, now a working artist, said risk-taking was encouraged and this is how he ‘visibly grew’. Looking back after his degree course, he told us how much he appreciated the ‘unbelievable facilities’: ‘It set me up to go out into the big wide world with my portfolio.’ Drawing, painting and printmaking (and everything in between, including a crocheted self-portrait) are in evidence from ceiling to floor as far as the eye can see. Add to this classical busts, paint-splattered smocks and a good dose of freedom and you have a scene guaranteed to inspire. One former student said he was so enthused that he used to take wet canvases home on the train to Hertfordshire every evening to work on overnight. Equally dedicated was the boy who willingly spent three hours getting to school on the day of a tube strike. His mother was thrilled and amazed in equal measure.

It was exciting to see teenagers using sewing machines with confidence, and lighting up when talking about a textiles project on ancient Japanese techniques, saying this school is ‘more me’, ‘we get lots of help’, and ‘this is really what I want to do.’ A dedicated performing arts space for drama productions is on the school’s wish list (space is currently rented for the purpose), but this does not hinder drama productions (eight a year) or music performance opportunities (a budding pop star is often to be found behind a microphone on open evenings). Music technology is taught in a purpose-built room which, on the day of our visit, pulsated with good vibrations. We listened while the proud young composer quietly glowed.

Classes are small - no more than 12 at GCSE, eight at A level (just as well as classrooms are compact) - and taught mainly in round table format, more akin to a university seminar. The concept of a ‘normal’ school day is more apparent in the younger years, but even here the mantra of ‘a light touch’ still applies. The timetable is arranged with short breaks between each lesson, with every lesson beginning on the hour for ease of remembering.

‘This is not a school for geeks,’ says one confident teenager. We nonetheless heard from parents of flexibility around less popular choices - a teacher was brought in to teach A level physics, for example, when demand arose. We saw a one-to-one biology lesson where the student clearly revelled in the personal attention, ‘even though it’s obvious when I don’t know the answer’. Latin continues to be offered, with classical civilisation and Greek – all useful adjuncts to history of art, where we observed one of those lessons we wished we had had ourselves: Classicism v Brutalism – or the proportion and beauty of Palais Garnier versus the layered horizontal terraces of the National Theatre. Business studies is growing: ‘We didn’t think we’d be brilliant at it, but we are,’ says the head, rather disarmingly. Language groups are small at GCSE and at A level and, as with other subjects, special arrangements can be made for individuals who have an interest in taking their own language, as has been the case with Turkish and Russian. The small GCSE classes lend themselves to students who may need to dispel some of the negative attitudes around school and to reset. We observed a perfectly amiable but disenchanted maths set questioning the point of algebra. ‘It’s about training the mind to see things differently,’ explained the teacher with utmost patience.

All students have a timetabled weekly session with a personal tutor, a key point of academic or pastoral contact, to whom subject tutors give fortnightly reports tracking results and effort. In addition to working on study skills and setting realistic target grades, the collaborative approach focuses on the student’s strengths and what might make for an even better outcome, ‘to upskill before the next step’. ‘We are glass-half-full people,’ says the head, once again confirming the underlying positive rather than punitive approach to learning. ‘Students here need to want to have the spotlight on them,’ adds her mother with equanimity. ‘There is nowhere to hide.’

Learning support and SEN

Learning support is overseen by the very accessible pastoral deputy head, whose room is central to the school and whose door, we noticed, is always open. Two assistant tutors provide one-to-one support, which might include working on study profiles and ensuring that each young person gets the help they need ‘with no barriers to learning’. A good percentage of students have some sort of educational or emotional need (therapy putty and fidget bands much in evidence), but the overriding acceptance of diversity seems to make every student feel able to ask for help as necessary. A few students are on EHC plans but the school is keen to emphasise that this is not their expertise and they cannot support one-to-one teaching throughout the curriculum.

The arts and extracurricular

Many students already study the subjects that other schools would consider to be extracurricular, so there’s no need for photography or film club. There are no after-school choirs or orchestral ensembles, but pupils may take instrument or singing lessons as an extra, and LAMDA is encouraged. Gallery and museum visits, not surprisingly, complement the learning; we watched a very quiet and focused graphics class where a visit to the V&A had inspired students to come up with a commercial outcome (from vintage clothes to comic books) from their drawings of classical sculpture. The art studio is open until 6pm every evening and life-drawing classes are open to all. A number of international study trips introduce students to the art treasures of Europe. Weekly enrichment talks are given by external speakers (including parents) and help broaden the mind on everything from wellbeing to future careers.

Sport

Competitive sport is not the obvious bedfellow of creative individuality but, for those students who want it, weekly football and basketball are available. One parent told us how, as elsewhere in the school, the ‘have a go’ attitude is encouraged, ‘as long as it’s not about the winning’. In spite of space constraints on site, sport (football and netball) is a timetabled activity in the GCSE years.

Ethos and heritage

Established as a specialist sixth form arts college nearly 45 years ago, the overall flavour remains distinctly artsy. Art is simply everywhere, including in the loo, where a print of Velazquez’ Rokeby Venus is the antidote to contemporary vaping packaging. The founding ethos ‘which remains embedded in the school,’ says the head, was to create a school that the founders themselves would have liked to attend. The school is now owned and governed by Dukes Education, the founder of which wanted to give students the chance ‘to be successful in the face of obstacles’. Not all students have encountered obstacles, but there is no doubt that many of them felt constraints in their previous school and respond well to the more liberal approach to learning. They can ‘quietly be themselves’ and discover, in their own time, their individual interests and talents.
As the school has grown, buildings have been acquired near the main England’s Lane site, and students wander freely between them. The focal point is a collection of buildings clustered around a delightful Italianate cobbled courtyard. A marquee erected during the pandemic has become a useful and friendly hub, notably at lunchtime when most students go out and buy their own lunch - the independence vibe extending to this freedom too. The lack of space generally (there is no large communal area, dining room or assembly hall) does not seem to bother the students, who are just pleased to be somewhere which does not resemble a school. ‘My son’s whole body changed as soon as he walked through the door,’ said one parent with a huge sense of relief.
In the sixth form, students do not have to be on site when they are not in lessons. The coming and going might suggest an opportunity for prioritising socialising over learning; indeed, the study area in the windowless basement is not a fair match for Starbucks. All students appreciate the independence and this seems to translate into a seamless transition to university where they ‘not only survive, but hit the ground running,’ according to the head.
There is no whole-school assembly, but we would have loved to hear the short morning presentation on ‘Autumn, how is it depicted in paintings?’ or ‘Thought for the day on Attention Deficit’, delivered by a teacher who suffers from ADSD. One student, when asked what they thought of it, said candidly, ‘It was great but I can’t remember too much as my mind wandered a bit.’ This is a school where no one is going to think any less of a creative spirit for being his honest self.

Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline

All academic and wellbeing issues are tracked centrally, so tutors have a full picture of every student. They feel known and heard: ‘we’re able to say what we need’, ‘there’s an easy one-on-one relationship’, ‘it’s hard not to fit in’. The head of pastoral confirms that ‘students are encouraged to have an opinion and are celebrated for who they are.’ Students have to give permission for parents to see their records, which helps them take ownership of their learning. ‘This is the students’ space,’ says the principal, who goes on to say that ‘if anything hits the radar, parents will know about it.’ Students sign a code of conduct when they arrive at the school but, in reality, it is more about promoting good behaviour; the students ‘want to be liked’. ‘There aren’t loads of rules for no reason,’ says one student who has clearly encountered too many in the past. It is quite simple: they are expected to arrive at lessons on time with the right equipment; bad manners or swearing are not tolerated; inappropriate dress is discouraged - although this is a creative place and there’s plenty of scope for individuality through clothes, hair styles and piercings. ‘We like expressing ourselves,’ we are told, as if that isn’t clear for all to see. If discipline issues arise, it’s the recurring soft touch: ‘We try to unpick it without upsetting them, all the while building trust and resilience.’ We didn’t once hear a raised voice. Graphic artist Anthony Burrell’s simple message ‘Work hard and be nice to people’ is to be found in prominent places around the school. Indeed, if this were the sort of school to have a motto, this could be it.

Pupils and parents

Students come from all over London, and even from the home counties. Some live with guardians nearby, just to be able to attend this very individual school. As one alumna said, ‘If you are arty and unique you will find like-minded people.’ A number of parents work in the arts world themselves, but many professions are represented among this diverse parent body, which can only see the benefits of a less-conformist way of learning. Creative spirits themselves, many admit they would have loved it. Twenty-five per cent of students join from state schools. Less than 10 per cent are from overseas. This is not the sort of school where parents linger at the school gate nor, much to their relief, do they get involved with parents’ associations. Fundraising is up to the pupils, who organise their own charity events, most recently dressing up as cultural icons (just imagine!) and setting up a food bank for Camden.

Money matters

The school has a small number of scholarships and bursaries available, awarded on merit.

The last word

Most students feel instantly liberated by the relaxed atmosphere engendered by hugs, headphones and hoodies. So grateful not to have to conform to traditional norms, they discover a new motivation to learn: ‘it’s a very different atmosphere to other schools’; ‘it’s very freeing’; ‘everyone is valued’. Their parents’ relief at finding a school which not only accepts them but also suits them is equally palpable. They talk of mutual respect and say that their offspring are at last happy. ’This place has changed my life,’ says one satisfied student; the same could be said by many a parent.

Please note: Independent schools frequently offer IGCSEs or other qualifications alongside or as an alternative to GCSE. The DfE does not record performance data for these exams so independent school GCSE data is frequently misleading; parents should check the results with the schools.

Who came from where

Who goes where

Special Education Needs

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder
Aspergers
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia
Dyspraxia
English as an additional language (EAL)
Genetic
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory
Has SEN unit or class
HI - Hearing Impairment
Hospital School
Mental health
MLD - Moderate Learning Difficulty
MSI - Multi-Sensory Impairment
Natspec Specialist Colleges Y
OTH - Other Difficulty/Disability
Other SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
PD - Physical Disability
PMLD - Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulty
SEMH - Social, Emotional and Mental Health
SLCN - Speech, Language and Communication
SLD - Severe Learning Difficulty
Special facilities for Visually Impaired
SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
VI - Visual Impairment

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